Differences Require Identity

As you come out of the plane into the humid heat of Lagos, you realise that you’ve left one world for another. The corridors leading to the arrival hall are dingy, dark, shrouded in a gloom that is the absence of proper lighting. You negotiate a short flight of steps, terrazzo floor that needs a wash, with a broken-down lifting device for wheelchairs on one side. It’s been seized up for as long as I can remember. Then you know you’re home, not merely that you’ve crossed into another dimension, another world. But that very specifically you’re home in Lagos.

It has always been difficult to work out the system, where do you head, where do the different queues lead? In this infinitely complex maze, you need first patience, next a guide who knows what the invisible hurdles are, the hidden codes that determine who and what matters. There’s the bewitching smile that hides the cutthroat determination to extort some hard currency from your wallet.

Your passport will be passed from one inscrutable person to another and then to another who studies your face with the attention of a laser guided Exocet missile. You breathe a sigh of relief as the final apparatchik waves you away. But your ordeal has only just started. The luggage will take a further hour if not two to arrive- the conveyor belt will breakdown at least once, some suitcases will spill their content, unwashed underwear and more, you will pace and pace, your dread of missing luggage and stolen property will mount and ebb. It is a triumph of hope over despair when you’re finally free of the uncertainty that marks returning home.

Outside in the already darkened dusk, the din of traffic attacks your senses as does the unairconditioned air and there’s too the odour of tropical humid Africa, that aromatic fragrance of soil and vegetation. But my interest isn’t really about this particular border, rather it’s about borders in general, the invisible but real border between sanity and insanity, the concrete and inviolable border between ethnicities, the boundaries that can mean death and that are instructed in language and determined by the mispronunciation of a single phoneme.

How and why did identities crystallise so hard, so firmly as to be obsidian or diamanté in character? And then too, so prone to sudden and unexpected collapse- witness the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Everywhere borders are erected to keep out but really to keep in, a kind of ironic, paradoxical imprisonment. A loud scream of ‘We don’t want your kind in our country & we would rather starve to death than mix with you’.

This brings me to the divide between sanity and insanity, a distinction that is at most imaginary. This is not to say madness is imagined, but to make the case that like skin colour, at the extremes there’s the illusion of difference. If you travel up north from Lagos to London, not by plane but walking or cycling, you will notice the subtle gradation of skin tone, the absence of clear landmark iconographic change. And unless you’re committed to a world ruled by difference, it’s the commonality that trumps the apparent differences.

There’s a superficial difference in crossing that threshold from plane to land in Lagos but the structures are all recognisable, from immigration through to collecting my luggage and then the outside overcast sky. There was no alien unrecognisable portal, no change in the laws of physics or the basic design of human beings. There was the merest difference that somehow loomed large in my imagination. This too is the way with insanity and sanity. The perceptual world may be distorted, there may well be sounds or words that others cannot hear, but it is rare that what is perceived is unrecognisable or incomprehensible, the abnormal perception is still framed and infused by the self-same parameters that make perception possible at all. And even when it is language itself that is compromised, at its most fundamental aspects, the forward movement to denote or to express meaning, retains the hallmark goal, the driven impetus that may be impeded or derailed. This is why a description of the perturbation is possible at all.

Apparent difference is recognisable precisely because the underlying structures are retained and make possible comprehension and description.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

One thought on “Differences Require Identity

  1. Evocative of the explosive rush of heat and humidity after being encased in a climate control cabin, traveling from a North Atlantic winter. The differences we notice tend to be smaller of of less import than the commonalities we often overlook.

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